Energy: Canada's Shaggy Dog Story

You have to be tired of reading about, hearing about, Canada and energy—and oil. I am. It’s a story—just like the one about the particularly hirsute canine—that goes on and on with more layers, details, and complicating factors at each stage. I forgive anyone for thinking, Could we get to the end, already? But what would an “end” look like here?

I read an article by Max Fawcett several months ago. He was the editor of Alberta Oil. The message that I got was: The scariest things that environmentalists say are true, but it’s hard to have a “mature” conversation with them because the way they talk is scary. Well, he’s right: Environmentalists have a way of understanding and stating things that doesn’t accept anything beyond their own reality. For example, (Truth 1) every single bit of coal, oil, and gas that we burn is contributing to a terrible perturbation of the globe’s climate and we should stop right now. That’s right, but it’s scary. Here’s something that is just as true: There is no way to make people stop using fossil fuels right now. So what do we do with two truths that oppose one another? A reasonable environmental compromise might be: We know we can’t change everything right away, but we’re not doing enough. We’re not doing as much as we can. Also true. But see Truth 1; In the context of that truth, we can never do “enough” unless we achieve perfection.

“You’re asking for too much change, too fast.”

“You’re doing too much environmental damage.”

How do we saw that off?

Parenthesis: the “economic argument” is a very tough sell for a couple of reasons. The first is that lots of people have been arguing for decades that we should ensure that our economies (this argument has been made vigorously in Canada) should not be built on destructive materials and technologies. The second reason is that alternative energy should constitute terrific opportunities for new sources of wealth. Think about the simple reality that the actual energy in renewables, like solar, wind, bio, etc, is free. The processes, technology, and materials are not free, but those costs are coming down steadily. Just the opposite is true with fossil fuels: if we maintain our dependence on things like oil and gas, the materials themselves—the things that contain the energy, will become, in the long term, more expensive. And as the materials become more difficult to source, the technologies that we use to extract them will also become more expensive. So, just a caution to the (eg) oil lobby: the economic argument only works if you keep saying, “just for now …”, which becomes a whole shaggy dog story all by itself.

It’s true that humanity will be burning oil for decades no matter how hard we work to change that fact. It’s also true that there’s no real reason that Canada should not sell to that inexorable demand. But, logically, that’s only conditionally true. Can Canada’s oil be produced in a way that does not produce any more “upstream” emissions than the cleanest sources available? The answer to that, right now, is, No. The other condition would be this: If Canada (or anyone else) claims the right to sell a very problem-laden substance to users in the world community, that right is only legitimate if we do everything we can to develop the alternative energy technologies that reduce others’ needs for the substance.

I accept “reality.” I understand the economic argument. I know that lots of people depend on the oil industry for their livelihood. But I resent narrow, short term recourse to those facts as the only “adult” argument. Reality is a totality. [Hey! I like that.] If we invoke reality, we must take all of it. We have to stop putting greenhouse gas in the air. We have to.

The shaggy dog story goes on and on about the dog, the details, the complicating factors, and all the reasons for the evolving situation that arise out of the hairy nature of the dog. In all its versions it ends with something like, “Hey! That dog ain’t so damned shaggy!”

We know that the long, complicated, economic story of fossil fuels will end the same way: once we resolve all the economic problems, they won’t be economic problems.